by Andy Patrizio
Microsoft incurred some howls of anger when it announced that it was removing the Start button from the Explorer interface in Windows 8. People were outright shocked to learn not only was it gone from Explorer, Microsoft yanked the code out for the Start menu as well.
This forced move to the Modern UI, formerly known as Metro, has probably caused more consternation and is cited as one of the major reasons existing Windows 7 users will not upgrade. This is, after all, the means of operating a Windows PC people have known since 1995. Some horses will not be led to water.
Microsoft's logic appears to be it wants to force people to learn the new UI and doesn't want people to keep leaning on the old methodology of the Start menu. The company has not said directly so, but that has been the implication in blog posts by Microsoft executives.
Microsoft cited research that showed users weren't really using the Start menu very much, which also justified its removal. It also said that Modern UI apps and the classic Start menu don't have a way to interact with each other the old Start menu wasn't optimized for touch interfaces.
Before Windows 8 even shipped in late October, Start Button replacements began to appear on the market, developed on the public beta version of the operating system. With the final code released, there has been a flood of alternatives.
Of course, Windows 8 still launches into the Modern UI and you have to launch Explorer separately once the OS loads before you can fire up the new Start button. But once you are there, the Start button alternatives all operate pretty much the same. It's the secondary and additional features that differentiate them.
Let's run down the list of known Windows 8 Start button replacements, in alphabetical order by vendor.
1. Classic Shell
This is an open source, one-man project that was originally designed to replace the Start menu in Windows 7 with the XP-style Start menu. Why anyone would want to do that is a mystery. Anyway, Classic Shell has since been updated to provide a Windows 7 Start experience for Windows 8. Apps can be pinned to the menu like in Windows 7, and it has fly-out menus for Programs and Apps to run both classic Explorer desktop programs and Modern UI apps.
Developer: Ivo Beltchev
Cost: Free (open source)
StartMenu8 gives you a perfect replica of the Windows 7 Start menu orb and menus, along with a fairly spot-on reconstruction of the rest of the classic Start menu. One nice feature is that it lets you skip booting to Metro, deactivate the Windows 8 hot corners and the Modern UI sidebar and go right into Explorer. On the down side, it's not that customizable. Most of what it does is hard wired and not changeable.
StartMenuPlus8 is the basic version plus it adds a Task Menu to the professional version for a small fee. The Task menu lets you have direct access to apps, documents and other contents, so you can create your own menu entries.
Cost: Freeware / standard version is 4.99 / professional version runs $9.99.
Power8 isn't quite as powerful as Classic Shell but offers most of the features people want in a Start menu: fly-out menus for the main Start menu app hierarchy as well as Computer, Libraries, Control Panel, Administrative Tools, and Network shortcuts; a self-sorting menu of commonly used applications; a search toolbox; and support for Windows 7 Taskbar jump lists.
Developer: Power8 Team
Cost: Free (open source)
ViStart out of the box is very basic and offers you just a basic recreation of the Windows 7 Start menu's look and behavior. But it's highly customizable with XML configuration files, and people are contributing their own new skins. You get skins for the Start button, Start Menu and Task bar. There were 26 new menus alone as of this writing.
StartW8 is yet another basic reproduction of the classic Start menu with fly-out menus and search and not much else. It uses its own graphic instead of the large orb and doesn't have many customizations. You can boot directly to the desktop after logging in instead of the Metro UI but unlike some of the other replacements, it doesn't disable charms or hot corners.
Start8 comes from StarDock, who know a thing or two about this space. They make the ObjectDock desktop toolbar, which looks like the pop up app menu on the Mac OS, and Fences, which lets you group icons in your own layout instead of the standard Windows columns.
Start8 looks identical to the Windows 7 start menu. Everything, from the window design to colors to fonts. They also included features like slide-out opening of folders, type-to-search, pinning apps to the menu, bypassing the Modern UI and going straight into Explorer, and a really clever feature, the ability to access the bottom-left hot corner brings up the menu even when you are running a Modern UI app.
Developer: Stardock Software
Cost: Free 30-day trial; $4.99 for a single-user license
This is probably the most ambitious program of the bunch because it does a LOT more than just restore the original Start menu. It uses the Start menu as a means of notification, just like the Modern UI apps. So opening the Start menu will give you Facebook updates, check your Gmail and Twitter.
Pokki isn't just a Start menu replacement, it's a mini-OS with hundreds of Pokki apps, from games to streaming media players to productivity tools. Forget running the browser to check Gmail or keep up with your Instagram friends, now you do it from the start menu.
And it's all free, which is crazy. If anyone could justify charging it's these guys.
RetroUI isn't joking with a name like that. It turns the Start menu and fly-out menus into something reminiscent of the X Windows for Unix in the 1990s. Instead of the text menus, you get a series of boxes, or tiles, that looks like someone whipped them up in Photoshop in 10 minuntes.
It has all of the usual features: the original Start menus; shortcuts to the Modern UI Task Switcher and Charms bar; the ability to skip the Modern UI and go straight to Explorer; run Modern UI and Windows 8 apps in a window; disabling hotcorners and remote desktop support.
Cost: Free 7-day trial. Pricing starts at $4.95 per user
StartIsBack is a perfectly faithful reproduction of the Windows 7 Start menu, orb and all, and that's about all it is. You can boot straight to Explorer and toggle each of the hot corners. It also has a fully functioning search engine similar to Windows 7 and you can right click on apps to pin them to the toolbar.
Cost: Free 30-day trial. Two-PC license $3
StartMenu7 started out as a replacement for the Windows 7 Start Menu, which the developer felt was too limited. Now he's made it available for Windows 8. This is a plus in its favor, because the software is much further along than some of the newer products that just came out with Windows 8.
It reproduces the Windows 7 menu and then some, adding the ability to resize the menu to take up as much or as little space as you want to add a lot more. Like Pokki, you really can turn the Start menu into an app control panel. You can organizes shortcuts into virtual groups in addition to individual shortcuts.
StartMenu7 is available as a free version and a $20 Pro edition that offers even more features and customizations, like Tabbed menus and single click app launch.
Cost: Free, Pro version is $20
Many of the above applications let you remember what it was like to use Windows before Microsoft took the Start Button away in Windows 8. If you have a touchscreen desktop available, however, we really recommend that you give it a try; if you don't have a touchscreen PC available, check out our new Touchscreen PC Buyers Guide!
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